CNN's says says that

The last US military planes have left Afghanistan, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, announced Monday at the Pentagon. The US departure marks the end of a fraught, chaotic and bloody exit from the United States' longest war.

"I'm here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans," McKenzie told reporters. "The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30th, this afternoon, at 3:29 p.m. East Coast time, and the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan."

Did the C-17 have help from the ground? Was the control tower still operational and provide clearance for takeoff and all other necessary services?

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    $\begingroup$ I cannot answer your question, but military operations such as this do not require/need any ground support at all. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I wrote I can't answer, but turns out I did... $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ I got an alert from FlightRadar24 as the last flights departed Kabul. Among the aircraft leaving were several C17, a couple each of KC135 and KC10, a B-52, and, notably, an RC135. There may have been other aircraft not visible to FR24. I speculate that coordination for final departures was provided by the RC135. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Clearance for takeoff" is not at all a "necessary service" for military aircraft in a scenario like this! $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


Information about Afganistan airspace is published online at www.afgais.com.

Last NOTAM published on OAKX (AFGANISTAN FIR) page reads as follows:

(G1264/21 NOTAMN
A) OAKX B) 2108160445 C) 2108180445 EST

So, as of 2021-08-16 04:45 UTC [B)2108160445], the civilian air traffic services have not been available for the entire Kabul airspace. The NOTAM does give an estimate of this situation to end at 2021-08-18 04:45 UTC [C) 2108180445 EST], but since it was an estimate, and no new NOTAMs were released since, it must be assumed the situation has persisted.

There most certainly was some sort of ATC for Hamid Karzai International, but most likely this was provided by military personnel, and the last flight quite obviously took these controllers with them.

As the Taliban took over the control of the capital, effectively any judicial and executive entities related to former governing structures ceased to exist. Air traffic services were delivered under proxy from the former government, and thus could not be lawfully provided anymore (Chicago convention and international law may have something to say about this, but it's well outside my expertise). And, I bet the civilian controllers had other things to worry about aside the legal considerations of ATC services. Hence the surrendering the airspace to military. Interesting side question is, to which military...

Now, as for operating the last flight, it simply departed as any flight from an uncontrolled airport/airfield. These are not uncommon operations for military aviators, especially those at airlift duties. Flight coordination was most likely provided by an airborne control center. Overall it is imperative that any military operation is as redundant as possible, not requiring any kind of fixed or permanent units to maintain them.

Addendum: Many thanks for @uhoh for referring the following link to a news article describing the last phases of airlift operation from Kabul. It is for sure a condensed and somewhat dramatized version of how thing actually went, but essentially the last flights departed in a remotely coordinated manner with preplanned sequencing. The remote coordination was, as I previously mentioned, not necessary in any sense, so should there have been any lapse in communications, the departure would have proceeded as it did regardless of any thumb-upping or lack thereof.

CNN: Air Force commander details final hours before last US planes left Afghanistan

It must have been quite a sight having five C-17's execute a tactical takeoff within only three minutes.

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    $\begingroup$ This.. it was probably part of a larger operation which were directed by controllers aboard control-aircraft like Sentries or E-3 AWACS. $\endgroup$
    – Olaf
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ A comment here claims that the civilian contractors left relatively early and military controllers were working out of a tent on the field. And of course the Internet is always accurate. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ I'm inclined to concur with that comment, as the civilians were most likely preoccupied with the safety of themselves and their families (?). Some kind of ATC service was absolutely necessary as the number of daily operations was quite high. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ The Afghanistan FIR was uncontrolled so a free-for-all. OAKB was procedural and involved joining the stack and crews passing distances and other relevant info to the Tactical ATCers on the ground who were managing the running order. $\endgroup$
    – Arkhem
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ This may be worth considering adding, from CNN's Air Force commander details final hours before last US planes left Afghanistan "Pelbath also detailed the orders he gave when the final evacuation mission was set to be completed, saying that when he got the OK from Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, he gave the order 'clamshell,' for the five planes to close up and begin taxiing the runway in Kabul. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 13:15

A few of the comments above have it completely right.

The tower was staffed by an ATC contract company (Serco I think) right up until the last few days. Once their manager pulled them out, a USAF Combat Control team working with a USMC ATC team provided tactical ATC until they boarded the last plane(s) out of there. Tactical ATC in this case means procedural control of aircraft (over-simplification, but akin to stacking them up) until they're within visual range.

The RC-135 (or AWACS/E-3s, etc) don't normally provide the kind of service that would be useful in a situation like that - although they may have been in this case. I honestly don't know about that part.

Obviously I can't provide a cite-able source, but this is via direct conversations with those involved and their supervision.


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